A full-scale row has blown up over plans to make taxpayers compensate the operators of the M3 motorway if the number of vehicles using it falls below target.
Meath independent councillor Brian Fitzgerald said that the issue was "a resigning matter for the Minister for Transport and the Government" and Meath East Fine Gael TD Shane McEntee condemned the proposed tolling scheme on the M3 as "unfair and unprecedented".
The motorway will have two toll plazas charging fess of €2.80 each, forcing anyone living north of Kells and using the motorway to get to Dublin to pay €11.20 daily for a return journey to work in the city, an annual total of over €2,600, it has been claimed.
It has also been claimed that the M3's operators, Eurolink, would earn €580 million in toll revenue over the 30-year contract, with the road reverting to State ownership after that.
Deputy McEntee said that the people of Kells, particularly commuters, had been waiting 10 years for the M3 to be delivered. "Now they find that they will have to pay two tolls on each journey to Dublin if they wish to avail of the new service. For workers who need to cross the M50, that adds up to a charge of €11.20 per day - over €2,500 per year," he said.
He added that it was no consolation to drivers who had sat in traffic tailbacks in Dunshaughlin, Navan and Kells for the last 10 years to be told that they can still drive on the existing N3 for free.
"I also find the 'minimum traffic clause' built into the PPP contract with Eurolink another cause for concern. In 2007 the NRA stated 'that the Authority considers the PPP approach will help deliver better value for money through cost effective transfer of risk to the private sector'. In my opinion, if the taxpayer is set to bail out the State to pay the toll operator, this is essentially a no-risk venture for Eurolink," the FG TD added.
He suggested that a one-toll system be put in place for those travelling the full length of the M3 and that the price of this be fixed for a minimum of five years.
Cllr Fitzgerald said that he had raised the issue of tolls as an election issue seven years ago. "I couldn't get anybody to give me support, either from Government or Opposition. I find it unbelieve able that if the revenue from tolls does not reach a certain level, the taxpayer will be dragged in to prop up poor old Eurolink. So anyone travelling from north of Kells will pay a double toll - one for travelling to and from Dublin and another in the Eurolink prop.
"Surely the people of Meath can now see for themselves that what I have been saying for years is now coming to reality. The National Roads Authority (NRA) hasn't denied any of this so it must be true," he said.
He said that the issue had now become a resigning issue for the Government and for the Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey. "They should be falling on their swords for doing such a deal purportedly on behalf of the people of Ireland," added Cllr Fitzgerald. "I also warned people that the NRA would be an unaccountable body and so it has come to pass. Nobody can question them. They seem to be able to do what they like - where's the democracy in that?" he asked.
Ireland East MEP Nessa Childers has also waded into the row saying the agreement by the Government to compensate the M3 toll operator if traffic does not meet expectations is further evidence of the particular Fianna Fail approach to some large businesses. If the business does well, it makes large profits; if it fails, then the taxpayer foots the bill, she claimed.
"The M3 deal is alarmingly similar to the Government approach to developers. When these thrive, they take the profits. When they fail, a generation of taxpayers picks up the tab. It is in the very nature of enterprise that there be risk. Under the Fianna Fail approach, there is no risk to their sort of entrepreneur, who cannot lose; only a burden on the taxpayer, who cannot win."
She said the public had a right to be fully informed of how many such pacts have been signed in their name. "The M3 deal is all the more bizarre as the State is rightly encouraging traffic off the roads through the reopening of the Navan rail line," she said.
Meanwhile, Meath East Thomas Byrne T.D. has challenged the view that Meath drivers could face up to €11.20 a day in charges on the new M3 motorway.
"There will be two toll plazas on the M3 when completed. One south of Kells and another north of Dunboyne. Each will charge approximately €1.40. This cost is significantly below the average EU toll charge for similar projects," he said. The Meath East TD also slammed local rumours circulating and which he claims are untrue, "such as that one must pay a toll on the N52 bypass of Kells or that you must pay two tolls if coming from the Ratoath/Fairyhouse area".
Deputy Byrne went on: "Upon completion, the M3 motorway will be one of the largest sections of roadway ever built in the country with over 100km of new roads, nearly half of which are not part of the actual M3 but rather connections and offshoots, such as the N52 bypass of Kells and the new N51 link road from Navan towards Athboy. The public private partnership model enables delivery of these projects in a tax efficient manner," he said.
"Nobody wants tolls but the fact is that putting tolls in place allows the construction to take place of the M3 and the very important associated roads. The M3 is scheduled to be finished next year. It will take thousands of cars off the N3 every day, shorten journeys and improve the quality of life for thousands of residents in the county," he concluded, saying that the N3 will still be open for those who do not wish to pay a toll.